Every year, Sundance showcases some of the finest new acting talent, young actors that could very well be next year’s biggest stars. Many young ingénues have gotten discovered at Sundance including Carey Mulligan in “An Education” or Catalina Moreno in “Mary Full of Grace,” just to name two. This year, that honor and potential opportunity belongs to Elizabeth Olsen, who is indeed the younger sibling of the more famous (or infamous) Olsen sisters. She kicks-off her year and her career by starring in not one but two movies at Sundance, both which show her to be an impressive acting talent.
Directed by Chris Kentis, Laura Lau; Written by Laura Lau
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Julia Taylor Ross, Haley Murphy, Adam Barnett
It’s been eight years since the filmmaking couple of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau brought their low-budget stranded-at-sea thriller “Open Water” to the Sundance Film Festival, with many claiming or hoping it to be the next “Blair Witch Project.”
In their single take remake of the Uruguayan horror film of the same name by Gustavo Hernández, they play with more familiar horror tropes, that being the haunted house thriller, but also delving into other horror sub-genres with slasher elements thrown into the mix.
A young woman named Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) has returned to her old abandoned family home with her father (Adam Treese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) in order to pack up their things and fix up the house to sell it. They walk around the darkened house – all of the windows are boarded up – with electric lamps that create an effectively eerie lighting and immediately there’s a strange dynamic between them that tells us something isn’t quite right. After her uncle leaves, Sarah starts to hear noises in the house, and when her father goes to investigate, he disappears, leaving her trapped in the house unable to get out. And apparently, she’s no longer alone in there either.
Like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope”* or the original movie, the conceit of the film is that it’s entirely shot in one take with only a couple obvious times where they could have easily cheated. If you weren’t informed in advance that the movie was done in one take, you may not even realize it as the camera person/DP follows the characters up and downstairs, in and out of the house in an incredibly fluid way, barely missing a beat as we go from mundane packing activities to intense horrors.
Kentis and Lau have done a terrific job creating an atmosphere of tension, keeping the viewer on the edge never knowing what to expect or in fact, what exactly is going on. This helps to make some of the more obvious jump scares work better than they might normally, something that can also be attributed to Nathan Larson’s subtle but effective score.
Even so, the filmmakers sadly go for many often-used cliches rather than trying to find original ways of scaring people. At times, it’s hard not to feel like the “Paranormal Activity” movies were a bigger influence on them than the original film since they use many of the same tricks. Just as Sarah is already freaking out beyond the point of being able to calm down, the lights in the house go out completely, leaving her alone with a flash camera. When that happens, you know what to expect, the old “using the flash to illuminate a room before something jumps out,” a cliché that’s been used in so many bad horror movies already. The fact that you’re never really sure if anyone’s really in the house with Sarah or if she’s imagining all of it or a combination of both is quite frustrating as well. Numerous times we see a physical presence, a large imposing man who seems to be stalking her, but then there’s also a creepy little girl who appears and disappears at random, then other times, she seems to be experiencing her own memories.
What keeps the film from failing is that Olsen is an amazing actress, able to pull off a wide range of emotions, the most important one being fear, and keeping the audience (and camera) riveted to her. The fact that she can run such a wide gamut in one take is even more impressive.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers stick the landing, just like in “Open Water” in fact, with an ending so ridiculous it squanders any good will the viewer may have had towards how effectively they’ve achieved what must have been an incredibly difficult task. Without giving it away, the ending not only leaves you wondering what you just watched but also wondering how any of it is could have even been possible; the ending text literally swiped directly from “Paranormal Activity” adds insult to injury.
Ultimately, “Silent House” is the type of horror film that will build a substantial unscalable wall between those who love it and those who hate it–mainly for that ending–although even the latter group should be able to appreciate it for the incredible craft at work.
*Thanks to Jeffrey Wells for lending us that reference.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Written and directed by Sean Durkin
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, John Hawkes, Brady Corbett
One of the greatest joys Sundance has to offer is going to see something you have very little to no expectations for and it ends up being something absolutely spectacular. Sean Durkin’s feature film debut is just such a film, one that we went in not really sure what to expect.
The odd thing is that Durkin’s short film “Mary Last Seen” was literally the only short we saw at last year’s New York Film Festival, and it didn’t make very much sense on its own, at least to us. In fact, it may as well have been a preamble to this film as it stars Brady Corbett playing the same character driving with his girlfriend through the forest before arriving at an imposing farmhouse.
That farmhouse is where things begin as we see what looks like a large family eating before one young woman, played by Elizabeth Olsen, decides to run off. Corbett finds her and tries to convince her to come back, but instead she calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and goes to stay with her and her husband (Hugh Dancy) at the Connecticut lakeside summer home. At that point, we already know what Olsen’s character must have gone through some sort of ordeal at that farmhouse but we don’t know what. As Marcy tries to adjust to a tranquil and normal life with her sister, the film flashes back and we learn that she previously lived in a cult-like commune led by the influential Patrick, played by John Hawkes. As it goes back and forth in time we start to see what kind of control Patrick has over Marcy and the things he convinces his flock to do in the name of community. Really, there haven’t been many (if any) films that take such a precise look at the brainwashing that goes on in a cult-like setting and the trauma it’s likely to cause once someone gets free.
As fantastic as Olsen is at carrying “Silent House” for every second of the film, she’s able to give a far more nuanced performance here as the story transitions past and present, between her different roles in life – Martha when she’s with her sister and Marcy May or Marlene, names she takes on as part of the commune. As one can discern from the title, this is very much a film about identity and how this woman has to get through the experience of being brainwashed by Patrick into doing things normal people would see as wrong, then having to integrate herself back into society. There are very few actresses Olsen’s age who could pull off such a role in a convincing way. Portraying the quietly menacing cult leader allows Hawkes to prove once again what an underrated acting force he is. He rarely raises his voice as he’s getting his followers to do what he wants, though he’s clearly a very bad man. Paulson and Dancy also give strong performances as Marcy’s sister and brother-in-law who can’t imagine what she’s been through. They try to adjust to her erratic behavior, because she’s used to living in a specific way under Patrick’s guidance, but eventually that becomes too problematic for them.
To call the movie “this year’s ‘Winter’s Bone'” may be somewhat unfair, especially due to Hawkes’ presence, but it certainly has that vibe where the story unfolds in a slow and precise way much like that film. It may also be compared to last year’s other Sundance hit “Blue Valentine” in the way it transitions between present and past so fluidly they enhance the storytelling rather than being obtrusive. Instead of using traditional scoring, Durkin uses ambient sound design to create an uneasy atmosphere that subtly builds the tension along with Marcy’s paranoia of Patrick or his followers finding her. You may be watching what seems like a fairly innocuous dialogue scene without realizing there’s an underlying ambient tone that keeps you on edge. Most filmmakers would deliberately build that tension then release it in one final confrontation, but Durkin takes a far more unexpected and jarring approach by not going for the predictable resolution.
Durkin’s first feature film is one of the more impressive debuts we’ve seen in some time, a hypnotic and haunting film that pulls you into its story and keeps your attention while maintaining a steady intensity never feeling the need to escalate things in an unnatural manner.